11 May 2008

Tim Brabants is a tall, lean, hard-faced but friendly medical man whose last duty was to attend to a fellow passenger having an apparent heart attack in mid-Atlantic after the pilot said: “Is there a doctor on the flight?” Meanwhile he paddles his own canoe so seriously that he is one of Great Britain’s bankers for a medal in Beijing.

He races in a kayak – the one in which you sit as opposed to the actual canoe, in which you kneel. Last year he won gold and silver at both the World and European Championships and took the 500 metres and 1,000m events at the Olympic trials in Beijing. Next week he competes in the Europeans in Milan with his Olympic place already guaranteed. In 2000 he won bronze at Sydney, four years ago in Athens he set a world record in the heats but missed out on a medal. At 31 it’s something he aims to put right.

“The Olympic gold has to be the ultimate goal,” he says, somehow folding his 6ft 2in, 14st frame into the 17-foot, 26lb bright blue water beetle in which he has spent his sporting life since his mother took him for a week’s holiday session at Elmbridge Canoe Club in the summer of 1987.

The Olympic statement is a familiar one, the oldest of all the Five-Ring refrains. We will be hearing a lot more of it from many quarters in the next three months and be quite overwhelmed with it as London gears itself towards the Games of 2012. But with Brabants it rings true despite the incongruous contrast between the gleaming, state-of-the-art rowing and canoeing lake the Chinese have created near Beijing airport and the timeless Thames flowing past Kingston in a hot dreamy haze.

The British Canoe Club are located on Trowlock Island, an eccentric 29-bungalow, 55-soul strip of land whose recent claim to fame is to have challenged the Environment Agency’s decision to increase the annual charge for using the chain-link pontoon ferry, which provides the sole access to the mainland across a full five metres of water, from £3.50 to £5,000. All good whacky stuff not far from the pages of Three Men in a Boat. But there is not much Jerome K Jerome about Tim Brabants.

He is a modest, high-achieving example of how sport can add to character without consuming it. At the Salesian School in Chertsey he was set to follow his father into engineering until his interest in how the body reacted under stress and strain turned him to medicine. “I think having to organise my time and focus on sport has helped me get through my medical training,” he says. “I have often asked myself which was the greater adrenalin rush, the start of the Olympic final or getting ready for medical finals. It’s actually quite a close call.”

A double deepening of perspective came when he took 18 months away from his sport after Athens. Professionally he had to answer the sometimes 80 hours-a-week challenge of being a doctor in an A and E unit in a Jersey hospital; personally he had to face the tragedy of his ever-supportive mother being stricken by leukaemia.

“It was a difficult time,” Brabants says. “But it meant that when, thanks to the World Class Performance grant, I was able to come back full-time to paddling, I was even more focused.” That’s a verdict echoed by Eric Fuller, his coach since 1994. “The key thing with the athlete,” says Fuller, whose day job is running a damp-proofing business, “is that the desire, the motivation should still be there.

“In the early 30s the athlete’s body is still improving and it’s no surprise to me that on all lab figures Tim is stronger and fitter than he has ever been, or that he destroyed the field in his last race at Nottingham. He won’t be fully tuned for Milan but everything should peak for Beijing.”

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